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Archive for the ‘Strategic Railroading’ Category

Rail-izing Positioning

Having lived in New Orleans (NOLA) for nearly a decade, I adopted the “positioning” methodology used by locals for locating a bar/restaurant/whatever in that crescent shape street infrastructure that romances the curve of the Mississippi. With such a fan-shape set of cross streets, one could not really use the North / South & East/West terminology that makes sense in cities with a rectangular street infrastructure. Rather, the folks in NOLA refer to a bar/restaurant/whatever as being Uptown or Downtown & Lake side (Pontchartrain) or River side (Mississippi) of the particular street. And, for many it seems, this is easier to remember and explain when jumping into a cab during a night of New Orleans’ revelry.


In the railroads, the positioning technology for tracking trains for a century or so has been to define the “block” of the track infrastructure occupied by the train without any accuracy of where in the block the train resides or at what speed it is traveling. And, unlike the case for NOLA folks, this positioning methodology doesn’t make sense anymore as railroads look for more capacity out of their current infrastructure. The railroad’s block perspective is due to the use of track circuits in conventional signaling operations for determining block occupancy. And even worse, roughly 1/3 of U.S. freight trackage does not even have track circuits for positioning – what is referred to as “Dark Territory” where the trains only “appear” to the dispatcher in spatial chunks of 20-40 miles when the train engineers  seek additional movement authorities.


Now, thanks to the U.S. Federal mandate of PTC, the railroads are required to implement a wireless data infrastructure. In my opinion this is the primary value of the mandate since PTC is far from being cost justifiable on safety benefits. Rather, PTC is a Godsend for railroads, whether they recognize it or not, because the mandate has forced the majority of railroads in the U.S. to make the transition to the digital age of wireless data that most Class I’s had been resisting due to the lack of a strategic technology plan aligned with a strategic operating plan, i.e., strategic railroading. But, what has yet to be railized by freight railroads is that the “virtual age” is upon them. Specifically, the use of virtual positioning technologies supported by the availability of wireless data can greatly reduce both capital and maintenance cost of railroad operations while significantly increasing the capacity.


The PTC mandate has forced the railroads to develop an accurate on-board platform that exceeds that of GPS alone.  The BAD news is that this component has been designed by technicians instead of technologists (who provide a bottom line perspective of the use of technologies) to far exceed the requirements for PTC. BUT, the good news is that this component provides the basis to make the transition from CTC to Virtual CTC (VCTC), both along the main line and in interlockings.


As presented in my previous posting on this blog, Railroads and the Virtual Age, VCTC means replacing physical block occupancy technologies, e.g., track circuits & axle counters, with virtual technologies that include an expansion of GPS with additional positioning technologies, e.g., tachometer, accelerometers, gyroscopes, GLONAS, etc., that are integrated via a Kalman filter (check Wikipedia) to achieve amazing, reliable accuracy even when GPS is not available in a tunnel, for example.


While a natural for mainline, VCTC’s capability with the addition of moderately accurate End-of-Train (EOT) positioning means that interlockings can use virtual technologies as well. After all, what is the real difference between mainline and interlockings? Answer: there really is not any difference that the proper use of technologies can’t resolve if technologists are involved.


BOTTOM LINE: The pursuit of VCTC, both along the mainline and in interlockings, offers freight railroads the opportunity to dump CTC. This is a fantastic opportunity for railroads as to both costs and efficiency if they can get their heads out of conventional operations. However, this is not good news for traditional CTC suppliers that benefit from the revenue of capital-intensive CTC infrastructure and the on-going extensive maintenance.


Welcome to the virtual age, you all. Even the NOLA folks have adjusted to virtual positioning (e.g., Google Maps), as we all have. But, they continue to use the uptown/downtown & lake side/river side description that is part of the charm of New Orleans. However, railroads don’t operate on charm. They operate on the bottom line, and VCTC along the mainline and in the interlockings is the future.

Railroads and the “Virtual Age”

This is my first posting in over a year.  I have been working on redesigning a VCTC solution (see VCTC category for postings on that subject) for Kazakhstan’s railroad, KTZ.  That project is now successfully completed – So, back to the blog.

Four years ago I made a posting about “Significant Digits”  Below, I expand upon that perspective relative to railroads making the transition to the “Virtual Age”.  This discussion was published in the Railway Age’s C&S Buyer Guide in December, 2014. It is not available digitally, so I provide it below.

As an increasingly mobile society we have all experienced major changes in our way of doing life with the shift from analog to digital technologies:  wireless, IT, and positioning. And, we have done so at a much more rapid rate than many industries, including freight railroads. Of course, our individual situation of adopting new technologies is much simpler than for a railroad with 10,000s of radios, 10,000s of miles of track circuits, 1,000s of locomotives, and 100,000s of rolling stock. However, there is more to the lack of transition for railroads than just that of massive fixed and mobile technology base and the necessary financial investment. There is also an inherent thought process for engineers today that didn’t exist a half century ago prior to the introduction of the digital age.  And now the virtual age is upon us, and its opportunities for railroads will be delayed as well unless engineers apply the art of engineering via approximation versus the science of engineering via precision.
The Analog Age
For those of us who completed our formal engineering studies before the 70s, the practicality of the slide rule, a.k.a. the slipstick, is well appreciated. This intriguing device of a sliding set of scales between 2 fixed sets, miraculously performs multiplication and division via the addition and subtraction of logarithmic-based linear distances. This analog calculator was the answer to the engineer’s prayer to replace paper and pencil for performing an endless flow of operands encompassed in engineering equations. But to use the slide rule, it was necessary for the engineer to accept that the solution would not be precise, but rather in the form of “significant digits”, i.e. limited to only 3 to 4 digits of relevance with preceding or tailing 0s. Additionally, the engineer had to mentally calculate the placing for the decimal in that an answer of .27 and one of 2,700 appeared the same on the slide rule. This dealing with significant digits and powers of 10 created a unique discipline of engineering as to problem solving by approximation. This is a discipline that is now lost to today’s engineers. And, this loss is resulting in over-engineering, e.g., PTC, and not developing pragmatic solutions for primary challenges to advance a railroad’s efficiently and safely with the advancement of wireless, IT, and positioning technologies.



The Digital Age
With the introduction of the digital personal calculator in the early 70s, the art of approximation quickly gave way to absolute precision. This is precision which is instantly, effortlessly provided to the user on a hand-held device’s green-lighted displays. Additionally, if one requires a discounted cash flow, for example, then only a single pressing of the appropriate function key is required once the data has been entered. The mind is given the absolute, precise answer without thought, without question, and unfortunately without the personal responsibility to truly understand the underlying mathematics. This mindless precision, in concert with the use of apps and software packages, has resulted in a substantial reduction in creative, practical engineering.

Unfortunately, the transition to digital for railroads has done little to improve the performance of railroad’s primary operations and processes. Dispatchers for most of the U.S. freight railroads are still working with the same non-intelligent CTC platform based upon where the trains were at some point within fixed blocks, but not where they will be and whether or not they’re even moving. Subsequently, the performance against schedules for these railroads suffers as to track time and the resulting inefficient utilization of key operating resources including locomotives, train crews, yard tracks, and maintenance crews.
The Virtual Age
Perhaps most advantageous to railroads, versus other industries that manage mobile resources, is the arrival of the virtual age where physical positioning technologies can be replaced with virtual positioning based primarily, but not solely, on GPS. As such railroads have the opportunity to reduce both the costs of operations as well as increase the efficiencies and/or safety in three primary areas: traffic control (mainline and interlockings), traffic management, and scheduled operations. Each of these areas is described below as to “What Is” and then as to “What Can Be” by applying creative engineering focused on the art of approximation, pragmatic precision if you will.


Traffic Control
Traffic control systems provide the vitality (integrity) of train movements along the mainline and within interlockings by generating the movement authorities provided to trains, of which there are 2 basic types used for U.S. freight: signaled and non-signaled, a.k.a. dark territory.

What Is: I often comment on the sanity of dark territory operation, especially when compared to signals, as to its providing cost-effective capacity and safety for small to medium density rail corridors up until now. Approximately ½ of U.S freight rail trackage is dark territory, albeit 1/3 of that is nested with signals referred to as ABS. In the classes I teach on railroad operations and PTC, I point out that signals are not installed for safety, but rather for capacity. That is, dark territory is safe, but its capacity is constrained due to the manual processes involved in tracking trains and transmitting  / rolling up movement authorities.  Hence, the use of signals is justified only on increasing capacity, but at a phenomenal cost of both capital investment and on-going maintenance expenses.

What Can Be: The creative engineer nurtured on the art of approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to replace or minimize the manual processes so as dark territory could replace a significant portion of CTC, thereby greatly eliminating the capital investment and on-going maintenance of CTC?”  Additionally, the creative engineer should consider how to eliminate the substantial physical and electrical infrastructures in interlockings that deal with positioning and routing integrity.   The answer for both mainline and interlockings is quite straightforward and now very approachable for those railroad corridors mandated to implement PTC.

To replace the use of time-consuming, and somewhat risky, voice radio between the train crew and the dispatcher to deliver authorities in dark territory requires a wireless data link between an on-board platform to display the authorities and the back-office conflict-checking software that generates the authorities. This concept of digitized authorities should be readily acceptable to most railroads at this point given that PTC’s implementation will provide the necessary wireless data infrastructure and the on-board display. However, to release (roll-up) authorities automatically will require positioning accuracy that must include both the train’s head end position provided by the PTC onboard platform, as well as the end-of-train position which is not delivered by PTC. The latter can be provided either through some form of end-of-train device and/or a default train length depending upon the headway between trains for the railroad’s corridors. The combination of these two positions provides “virtual” positioning” thereby eliminating the requirement for physical positioning.

With virtual positioning, a railroad can replace fixed block operation of CTC with virtual (flexible) blocks that ideally approaches the capacity and enforcement of moving block. Hence, a railroad can replace conventional dark territory and a significant portion of its CTC with Virtual CTC (VCTC), but without the extensive capital investment and on-going maintenance of CTC or the back office complexity and extensive wireless data requirements of moving block. With VCTC, both the mainline and interlocking vital infrastructure is replaced with a software-based conflict-checking platform. And, without the need for wayside vitality infrastructure and supporting code-lines, the dispatching operation becomes a virtual office permitting location flexibility and dynamic allocation of work load, including the ability to manage interlockings locally and/or integrated into a dispatcher’s responsibilities. Lastly, an additional benefit of VCTC with its virtual positioning based upon end-of-train, is that the loss of train integrity can be detected both within and outside of the boundaries of a train’s authority, which is a critical concern for many railroads across the globe.


Traffic Management
Traffic management serves the business perspective of moving the trains subject to the capabilities of the traffic control systems in place. Ideally, this is the challenge of the dispatcher to manage a plethora of variables to manage train movement based upon an  optimized schedule provided by the railroad’s Service Design.

What Is: For most U.S. freight railroads, traffic management is crisis-based, management that handles traffic conflicts as they occur. This type of management is inherent in CTC operations given fixed block positioning of trains without knowledge of train speed. Additionally, for optimal dispatching there are numerous variables whose continuous evaluation are beyond the capability of the human. Dispatching  continues to be more an art than it is a science.
What Can Be: The creative engineer nurtured on the art of approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to eliminate the constraints of crisis-based management. The answer is to make the transition from reactive to proactive by feeding timely train position AND speed data to mathematical planners that provide recommendations to dispatchers. The recommendations are based upon “objective functions” that represent the business model of the railroad. Again, the implementation of PTC will provide the necessary wireless network and on-board platform to provide the train status data.


Scheduled Railroading
As with major passenger airlines, the highest level of operational efficiency is based upon having a schedule that integrates the management of the primary assets to optimize the business objectives of the company. For railroads, those assets include track time, locomotives, train crews, yard trackage, and maintenance crews. And, as demonstrated by the passenger airlines and only a few major railroads across the globe, the IT architecture has to be so designed to provide the efficient and handling of critical operating data.

What Is: The truth is that the majority of US. Freight operations do not operate to schedule with any significant level of positive consistency. The railroads have their reasons of why this is so. But, based upon my engagements to study this for clients, the reasons are most often excuses by rail management to shift the responsibility to areas not directly under their control. My favorite example is a Class I that blamed the lack of scheduled operations on a major customer that insisted on setting up the schedule for its trains. In fact, the customer did this because the railroad had failed to maintain a schedule. There is also the now Catch 22 of scheduled operations given the high level of interchange between railroads. That is, how can one railroad operate to schedule if the roads with which it interchanges aren’t doing so, and visa versa?
The cost to the railroad of not operating to schedule is not just the loss of rail capacity, but also the increased level of key resources required (slack resources) due to their inefficient usage, including locomotives, train crews, and yard capacity.
What Can Be
The creative engineer nurtured on the art approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to improve the level of scheduled operations both within and beyond a railroad’s borders. The use of, and commitment to, proactive traffic management provides the first step. However, achieving scheduled operations is an industry issue as well. Therefore it is necessary for railroads to individually and collectively develop Enterprise IT Architectures (EITAs) and an Industry IT Architecture (IITA), respectively, that present an IT structure for operations and asset management based upon virtual positioning.
Bottom line: I see three major challenges for railroads to make the transition to the virtual age relative to the areas discussed above. First is the change in the mindset of the railroads’ engineers to work via pragmatic engineering so as to think objectively about virtual positioning. Second, is the shift in the discipline of labor to work with on-board enforcement/positioning and software-based, back office vitality.  Lastly, and perhaps the most critical, is that traditional traffic control suppliers will not provide such solutions naturally in that their revenue in marketing VCTC and the associated on-going maintenance costs are greatly reduced.

VCTC is the future, and it will happen. While the slide rule lasted 3 centuries before its obsolescence, I’m guessing that CTC and crisis-based management won’t make its first century at 2027 for many U.S. freight railroads.

Shaken! Not Stirred

About 20 years ago there was a cartoon in The New Yorker, a monthly periodical best known, arguably, by non- New York City residents for its cartoons.  This cartoon showed two wealthy gentlemen (in the style of the Monopoly game millionaire) lounging in the bar car of a passenger train with their martinis. (I think of them as Reginald and Wilfred).  Reginald states:  “This is a lousy martini. (pause) This is a Hell of a way to run a railroad”.

Being a martini enthusiast (only gin of course),  I can appreciate the nuance of making such an evaluation.

Back then, this now-shallow perspective was in actuality one credible way to evaluate passenger and freight rail operations in that it was “take or leave it” from the railroads’ perspective of running their railroads. That is, railroads provided the service that they wanted to provide given their monopolistic position as to transport.  However, beginning with the availability of the interstate roads during the Eisenhower administration, followed by the passing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight railroads as to the price that they could charge for services, there was a gradual, but sustained shift to the customer’s perspective. That is, with these two major game changes of the interstate road infrastructure and the Staggers Act, entered competition not only between rail and truck transport, but also competition between railroads.

In the last several decades, both passenger but primarily freight railroads have taken on a different perspective; a perspective on what technologies can deliver to make a railroad’s operation both more safe and efficient. I must state first of all, that US railroads, both passenger and freight, are extraordinarily safe, especially when compared to operations across the globe. (See previous posting “ What Price Safety” for some additional insight on this point.  But, I need to go back to the martini point.)

There are martinis, and there are martinis. James Bond’s infamous standard of “Shaken, not stirred” makes the point. But first, I should note that based upon an independent analysis of literature regarding James Bond’s life style, it has been determined that he was quite a drinker with his consumption of an average of 45 martinis within a given week. OK, so that is 6 +martinis a night which makes him somewhat suspect as to his objective credibility as quoted by Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table fame:  “ I like to have a martini, Two at the very most, After Three I’m under the table, after four I’m under the host.” So!  6+ martinis in an evening is clearly past the line.

The point of shaken, not stirred, can be applied to railroad operations, me thinks.  The difference between the two versions of martini preparations is that if a martin is shaken, then the ice can “bruise” the gin, where as stirred is like “Whatever, don’t mess with my gin.” Therefore, the parallel to railroads, you may ask, is that railroads have only been stirring their operational processes for the last several decades, at least, by simply upgrading their primary core technologies, i.e. communications, positioning, and IT, most noticeably with the shift from analog to digital, and the integration of distributed decision making platforms with the back-office infrastructure. But, railroads have not truly shaken up their business processes, a.k.a. process reengineering (dynamic work order is a good example), to take advantage of how the operation can change with advancements in technologies. Arguably, the most critical example is that of the management of train movements as to the underlying means of functional vitality (how movement authorities are generated) and the efficiency that an be achieved with more timely and accurate positioning of trains to advance from crisis-based fixed block operation to that of proactive, flexible block.

In this light, the passing of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that mandates PTC deployment across most of the freight and transit rail operations in the U.S. has been both a blessing and a curse. That is, the PTC mandate is forcing the railroads to deploy an industry-based wireless data platform with mobile IT platforms on locomotives. That’s super. But, the over-engineering of PTC and the lack of technology strategy across the industry, has dampened the progressive advancement of business processes that can use these technologies.  Simply state, there is no business strategy in sync with a technology strategy, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading, in most of the railroads, yet alone with an industry perspective for freight operations.

So! Do you want to shake things up in your railroad – or your client railroads if you are a supplier? Or do you just want to stir the same old stuff, the same old processes, albeit with upgraded technologies? If you want to shake things up, then consider what can be done with virtual positioning and wireless data technologies.  For one example, click on the VCTC category on the right side on the home page of this blog and review the postings.

Finally, permit me to add my personal notes on gin. With my 46 years of legally enjoying gin across the globe, I offer my following evaluation of several:

  • Bombay Sapphire: a classic, a standard, not insulting to anyone.
  • Hendricks: Just too much rose – only good for 1 a month
  • Blue Coat: made in the U.S and excellent, but then again keep it down to several week if you drink your martinis dry.
  • Gibson: my favorite when in France – can’t find it in the U.S.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I wrote this posting while drinking wine only. Wine is for thinking and writing … and Martinis are for neither.


When I joined IBM in 1970 as a Marketing Representative to sell computers, I was presented with a 10 inch plaque for my desk that simply stated “THINK”.  I still have that plaque on my desk.  Since that time of the commercial introduction of computers, corporate America has been proceeding through 3 stages of THINK as to their business environment. As addressed below, the U.S. freight rail industry has kept pace with the first two stages of Digital and Process Reengineering to a respectable extent, but the railroads have yet to fully embrace the 3rd stage, Connectivity, which is extremely critical for railroads to manage their primary reliance on mobile resources, both individually and collectively as an industry.

1: Digital

With the marketing of computers in the 70s, IBM realized that its first primary challenge was to educate its clients’ executives as to the opportunity to use computers to replace the straightforward processes that were handled by clerks, e.g., payroll, inventory update, accounts receivables / payables, etc.  These sequential processes of updating data bases were readily handled by the predominance of magnetic tape-based, sequential record data bases. THINK back then was how to make the business case for top-level management to lease these intimidating physical electronic monsters (purchase was not an option at that time with IBM).


To take on this challenge of converting manual (analog) processes to digital ones, IBM was hiring two basic types of disciplines, i.e., MBA’s and teachers. The former (which I was) were used to provide the business case, e.g., the discounted present value of advancing a business process, and the latter were used to present the business case.  With the phenomenal amount of Sales School training that IBM provided to its marketing personnel at that time, these two disciplines were blended to provide an unprecedented marketing force. We didn’t have PowerPoint, of course, but we were well trained on paper “flip chart” presentations that permitted us to efficiently make our “bullet” presentations to client executives.


As a side point, IBM’s Marketing Representatives were also trained on basic marketing/sales concepts such as

  • Shut up once you asked a question of the client so as to permit that individual to reach his / her own conclusion based upon what you had presented;
  • Once the executive agreed to the sale, you introduced no additional thoughts;
  • It takes 10 cold calls to close 1 deal;
  • Do not disparage a competitor directly. However, one could state demonstrated truisms, e.g., “Burrough’s computers perform 1/3 slower on your accounts receivables as demonstrated by the benchmark test that we performed with your data.” If you violated this principle, then it was very likely that you were soon on the street.
  • One never had alcohol at lunch  – unless the customer insisted, at which point you didn’t go back to your office or to that of your clients;  and
  • One dressed based upon the dress code of the customer – as long as it was a dark suit and a white shirt.

While IBM set the high water mark for ethical behavior in the Data Processing industry (the phrase for Information Technology back then), if not elsewhere, there was no question as to the benefit of such behavior including a most important advantage that an IBM business card would get you pass the secretary of almost any executive. Those were the good ole days, in that marketing was above board. Again, an IBMer would be fired immediately if s/he violated IBM’s sense of business ethics; ethics that were and are still unmatched in the US business (and political) environment in my opinion.

At this point in time, THINK was more about hardware than it was about software. Within a decade or so, the perspective of THINK advanced to Stage 2 with the transition from sequential tape processing to that of dynamic, direct access to data via affordable disk drives and the associated advancement in software.

2: Process Reengineering

For the last several decades, the concept of THINK has been all about functional understanding of what a business process is attempting to achieve. Some readers may recall the rush to Process Reengineering in the 90s. Simply explained, process reengineering meant reTHINKing how processes were handled as to workflows given the use of computer processing and wired telecommunications that integrated otherwise disparate entities in a company. This was a holistic perspective of the company and, in selected cases, an industry. However, the ability to reengineer processes was most often directly related to the ability to use wired communications between the sub-entities for the purpose of distributed, but integrated processing. However, for industries that are primarily about managing mobile resources, e.g., railroads, process reengineering was greatly limited in that a wired path can’t be attached to a locomotive. As a side point, IBM had developed an extraordinary concept of Business System Processing (BSP), a.k.a. Information System Processing (ISP) that proceeded process reengineering by 2 decades to optimize data storage. I have a posting on BSP that can be found by clicking on the category of Strategic Railroad on the right side of the home page and paging down to It Takes an Industry: Process, April 14, 2012.

3: Connectivity

With the ubiquitous availability of wireless data networks now, whether commercial or private, the 3rd state of THINK now also includes who “THEY” are that are involved in the functionality. This is an issue of connectivity, with a minor in functionality. For railroads this means tightly integrating the management of its trains, crews, locomotives, and maintenance with the back office systems based upon a very simple principle: “Where are my trains (I mean really where are trains other than just a block), AND at what speed are they traveling. This is all about running a truly-scheduled operation. The ultimate, but largely unachievable, example of this is moving block. But, short of that is the role of Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) that minimizes the consequences of traffic conflicts in dense corridors, and that can support “flexible block” operations versus the inefficiency of fixed block operations with traditional CTC operations. I have a posting on PTM that can be found by clicking on the category Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, and paging down to Degrees of Separation, December 26, 2012.


With the mandate of PTC, the freight rail industry has been forced to develop an industry-wide wireless network, which is clearly the true value of the PTC mandate given that our freight railroads are already extraordinarily safe. For those individuals that are still confused about the business benefits of PTC, please, please understand that PTC does not deliver business benefits. It is the availability of a wireless data network required for PTC implementation that can provide those benefits – as evidence by NS and BNSF, at least, that are achieving those fatuously proclaimed PTC benefits by some misguided individuals without the implementation of PTC.

An article of mine is scheduled to be published in the forthcoming C&S issue of Railway Age, and it will describe the pursuit of this stage, not just from an individual railroad standpoint, but also as what can be done to increase the efficiency of the U.S. freight rail industry. The underlying principle here is that a railroad is limited to its ability to run to schedule if the railroads with which it interconnects are not running to schedule, and visa versa.  In my opinion this Catch 22 can best be resolved by 2 means. First, railroads require PTM (with a glazing of flexible block), and Second, the annual bonuses of railroad executive must include a performance measurement as to Industry Efficiency. However, it is unlikely that the pursuit of industry efficiency will happen until there is a true Strategic Industry Railroading perspective that involves all of the Class Is.  So! Who will provide that industry strategy?  Hmmmmmm! It appears that there is a role for an independent consultant. Please call: (904) 386 3082.

Innocence Lost: Rail Operations

In the previous posting on this blog, I wrote about the Innocent Lost of Engineers, meaning that with the introduction of the commercially-available, hand-held digital calculators in 1972, engineers began to lose their ability to approximate solutions for a series of calculations with various powers of ten involved.  For example: engineers of that generation could quickly determine that 3.936 X 44,888 / 1,987 is somewhere in the range of 4x(90×500)/(4×500) …hence … 4×90/4 … hence …  90. Such capability was an art that complemented the use of the now-obsolete slide rule, an analog calculation device that performed multiplication and division by literally sliding sticks ruled with logarithmic scales. This lack in the skill of approximation for engineers not experienced with the slide rule is unfortunate because it is critical for thinking on one’s feet to obtain answers to move through complex situations efficiently, albeit not accurately. I also believe the ability to approximate solutions adds greatly to one’s level of creativity. Unfortunately, engineers of today feel compelled to deliver exactness limited by the number of digits displayed on their digital device. Their answer for the above problem would be 88.91754806240564…

Considering railroads, I see a significant lack of creativity with the current set of primary technicians across the industry as to their inability to “think outside of the boxcar, if you will. A case in point here is the pursuit of PTC in the U.S. where technicians are designing to extreme levels of exactness and capability that are clearly not warranted (see posting The Goods, The Bads, & The Uglies, March 5, 2013  found by clicking on the PTC category on the right side of the home page).

Now, I suggest that railroad operators are in the process of losing their innocence as well as to how they run their railroads. Fortunately, however, this is a good thing. Instead of operating a railroad as they have in the past to satisfy their own perspective of what a railroad is, i.e., take it or leave it, railroads are focusing now on customer service for the benefits of their own bottom line as well as that of the shippers by improving customer service. This customer / bottom line perspective started to evolve in the 80s as railroad executives began to recognize the increasing amount of freight traffic being captured by the trucking industry via the nationwide interstate road infrastructure. As a subject for a posting in the future, this was the genesis of the intermodal industry that has now replaced coal freight revenue as the top source of revenue for several Class I railroads.

As to operators losing their innocence, I see 4 phases that will permit them to eventually maximize the use of their resources while delivering optimal customer service.

  1. Resource Rationalization
  2. Scheduled Operations
  3. Proactive Resource Management
  4. Industry Management Perspective

Unfortunately, as explained below, most of the major U.S. railroads have only managed to achieve the first phase of resource rationalization in the last 2-3 decades. Too few railroads have begun to pursue the 2nd phase of scheduled operations, yet alone the 3rd phase of proactive resource management, and certainly not the 4th phase of industry management perspective.

1.    Resource Rationalization

This phase began with the signing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight rail industry in the U.S. This act introduced competition to the freight rail industry by removing the role of the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that regulated the tariffs for freight services. This first phase was managed via the infusion of MBAs in the railroads that struggled to work within the efficiency constraints of conventional traffic control systems and the associated operating processes. Such constraints included being confronted with the mindset of operators that fatuously believed that running a railroad without a true schedule was a test of their management skills. That is, a train schedule was something that was handed down to them by the ivory tower Service Design department staffed by MBAs, as “wouldn’t this be a great way to run a railroad”. But, a true operator was not being measured by such performance, but rather by his ability to work with conflicts as they occurred in traffic movements. Hence, what the MBAs provided at that point was limited to an analysis of contribution of individual rail corridors as to the railroad’s bottom, although that analysis was based upon non-scheduled operations. The result of their efforts was the shedding of rail corridors with less than acceptable performance. Unfortunately, the other primary assets, e.g., locomotives, rolling stock, crews, yard operations remained untouched as to their inefficiencies.

2.    Scheduled Operations

The railroads are now into the second phase of losing their innocence with the advancements in technologies, most importantly wireless data an virtual positioning, that can provide for more timely and aggressive handling of train movements by simply knowing where the trains are AND at what speed they trains are traveling. For most railroads in the U.S., they have only begun the process of deploying the necessary wireless data networks that can provide such data. It should be understood that this wireless deployment is not due to a strategy on the part of most railroads, but rather it is a deployment due to the Federal mandate to implement PTC, a system that requires a wireless data network.  I dare say that without that mandate, a number of railroads would still not being deploying such data networks due to a lack of operating strategy linked with a technology strategy (a.k.a. strategic railroading). For example, to my knowledge only 2 railroads in the US had such a strategy before the mandate to deliver the data required to improve the efficiency of their crisis-based dispatching processes.


With this additional level of timely and accurate train position and speed data, the challenge of efficiently dispatching trains increases beyond the mental capability of any dispatcher to deal with all of the variables in dense corridors. One should understand that effective dispatching until this time had been an art based upon not only the mental capabilities of the dispatcher, but also by his/her degree of experience with a particular corridor. And, based upon the principle that one can not effectively manage dispatching if one cannot measure the efficiency of dispatching, then I suggest that no major railroad had, and perhaps has, any effective measurement technique as to the efficiency of its dispatchers. Maybe, they think they do, but most likely it is based upon the conventional concept that a dispatcher should not make the same mistakes that s/he made yesterday, or the day before, or the week before, whatever.

Operating to schedule is not just about track time efficiency. Class Is are beginning to realize that the ability to run to schedule can result not only in better customer service, but also in a substantial reduction in the “slack resources” (a mathematical phrase when optimizing operations) that sit idle so as to permit some level of efficiency when locomotives are not where they need to be … or train crews outlaw … or the designated yard has insufficient in-bound tracks, etc. Simply stated, the unstructured inefficiency of depending upon the use of slack resources in a crisis-based, truly non-scheduled fashion is substantially greater than running to a schedule where slack resources are kept to a minimum to handle a substantially less level of conflicts when the schedule is corrupted…which is more the case than not.

3.    Proactive Resource Management

This next phase is that which only 2 Class Is to my knowledge have taken on. I introduced PTM a decade ago based upon a very simple construct. That is, in order to minimize conflicts of mobile assets, then wireless data is required to provide the timely and accurate data of where those assets are AND at what speed they are traveling.  With such information, then mathematical planners (basic algebra) can be used to predict where conflicts will occur. With that knowledge, then Operations Resource (OR) tools can be used that identify objective functions to minimize the consequences of those conflicts. For example, an objective function may be to reduce the travel time, or to maximize train velocity, for the set of trains being considered for a particular corridor, or for a set of corridors. Conventional CTC that is used across 50% of the U.S. freight rail trackage can only provide block occupancy with no knowledge of speed. For example, did that intermodal train come to a stop, and therefore the opposing merchandise is train being held on a siding for no reason? The other 50% of the freight trackage is dark territory where the dispatcher doesn’t even know which the block the train is in, yet alone the speed. Simply stated, PTM provides for flexible block operation (which is far short of the complexity, if not the questionable possibility of moving block) instead of the inefficiency of fixed block operation where trains vary significantly in length and speed. For further information on PTM, I suggest you read the posting Degrees of Separation, December 26, 2012 in the category Railroad Business found on the right side of homepage.

 4.  Industry Management Perspective

There  is a 4th  phase, which has yet to be initiated, that addresses the efficiency of the industry, and not just an individual railroad. The underlying point here is quite straightforward, but yet continues to be ignored. That is, given the substantial necessity of trains across U.S. railroads to operate within a specific region, yet alone to go from coast to coast, it is impossible to achieve the highest level of scheduled railroading if the interconnecting railroads are not running to schedule. So, there is a Catch 22 in that a given railroad cannot operate at its highest level of efficiency until the interconnecting railroads are running to schedule, but those railroads cannot operate to schedule until the given railroad is operating to schedule.


I see 2 requirements to break into this circular logic. First, the increasing use of PTM will narrow down the complexity of the interconnection challenges. Second, and most important, the annual bonuses of railroad executives need to be structured to place emphasis on industry efficiency, and not just the efficiency of their individual railroad.


Lastly, for the majority of railroads in the U.S., as well as for a number of low density corridors in the Class Is, there is still an issue of considering how wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence (such as that being provided via the implementation of PTC), can replace their current dark territory and low density CTC operations with Virtual CTC (VCTC) as described in other postings, including videos, on this blog (click on the VCTC category on the right side of the homepage).


All of the above is really quite straightforward to understand, but the traditionalists of railroads have yet to grasp that a paradigm shift is available to them given a shift in the core technologies that is available to them: again, wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence.

Innocence Lost: Engineers

Prior to the commercial introduction of the handheld digital calculator by Texas Instruments (the developer of the integrated circuit, a.k.a., micro-chip) in 1972, the act of performing mathematical calculations was often by means of the slide rule, a handheld analog calculator, that “miraculously” performs division / multiplication by adding / subtracting log scales via sliding bars. Using the slide rule back then was both a science and an art; an art that is now lost for those engineers nurtured only by digital technologies. That is, with the slide rule there was a certain level of innocence for those folks, myself included, in that we had to accept a marginal level of accuracy (versus doing time consuming, long hand mathematics) based upon the granularity of the scale provided on the sliding bars – what is referred to as significant digits. However, with the digital calculator, the accuracy level is only restricted by the number of digits displayed on the device.  For example, 8 / 3 on the slide rule would only permit a solution of 2.7 due to the principle of significant digits. However, on the digital calculator with 8 digit displays, for example, the answer would be 2.6666666. One consequence of such innocence, now also lost, was determining the placement of the decimal point in a series of calculations. For example, using the simple 8 / 3 calculation, the manipulation of the slide rule would be the same for 800,000 / 3 as it would be for 8 / 3.  Hence, the approximation of 2.7 shown on the slide rule required the user to interpret this as 270,000 – versus the 266,666 displayed on the digital calculator. And, for a series of calculations, this could indeed be a challenging effort.


The point of the above is that the innocence of approximating answers based upon significant digits and placing the decimal in one’s head has been irreversibly taken from us with the onslaught of the digital age. Unfortunately, this lost of innocence, in my opinion, has placed a fatuous belief in the importance of absolute accuracy, versus the pragmatic perspective of what really is required for a given situation. And, I suggest this difference is proving to be very expensive unnecessarily in the development and deployment of technologies across the majority of the rail industry that doesn’t deal with high speed / high density operations. Simply stated: Rail time IS NOT Real time for the majority of railroads across the globe.


A primary example of Rail vs. Real is the collection of PTC efforts in the U.S.  For the pragmatist, the timeliness and accuracy of train position and speed required for traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement (my generic term for PTC) for the majority of railroads across the globe, is rather basic and inexpensive to provide compared to the technical architecture being developed by the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committees charged with designing PTC. To expand my point, I refer you to my previous posting on this blog as to the “The Simplicity of Complexity” where I refer to the “80/20” rule, i.e., where 80% of an objective of (choose a topic) can be achieved with 20% of the resources required to achieve 100% of the objective, if that 100% is even achievable. Applying the rule of 80/20 to PTC and traffic control /management (see my postings on VCTC), then unlike those individuals raised on digital precision, the position AND speed of trains in supporting PTC and effective traffic control / management is greater than that provided by fixed block signaling systems, but substantially less than real time. That means that engineers charged with designing virtual positioning approaches, e.g. GPS, and wireless data infrastructure to deliver the data for on-board enforcement as well as to the back office control / management systems, do not require anything approaching the complexity of the technologies being designed for PTC. Yet, our current breed of technicians that have been raised exclusively in the environment of digital communications, video games, and the instantaneous and unlimited throughput of wired IT architecture, do not have that 80/20 perspective. For example, why does a railroad need a level of positioning accuracy for PTC that far exceeds the accuracy of the braking curve for enforcement? And, yet, that is what has been designed by ITC. As to wireless, why do the railroads need a 220 Mhz network in parallel to the already installed 160 Mhz infrastructure? Actually, I know the answer to this wireless question, and it has to do with the failure of the railroad technicians (and their management) to develop a pragmatic strategy of what they could have done to replace their analog 160Mhz platform with a digital trunk system (e.g., TETRA) that would have greatly increased the capacity of that infrastructure to not only handle PTC, but also to readily handle the wireless voice requirements of crowded metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Kansas City.  Ok, so perhaps that last sentence is a bit technical here, but it shouldn’t have been for technicians that should have sought out pragmatic solutions.


The bottom line is that US railroads, for PTC implementation alone, will be investing $Billions more than that which is really necessary. One could perhaps make the argument that such an investment will have other benefits in the future such as developing an industry-based strategic operations plan involving the effective interchange of trains, chain of custody, asset and shipment management, etc.  BUT, that strategy does not exist … and nor will it until railroad executives are compensated via their personal objectives and associated bonus program to take such a viewpoint.


In a forthcoming posting I will be writing about the Innocence Lost: Rail Operations, But unlike the innocence lost for engineers, this will be a very positive perspective because it really addresses the Ignorance Lost.

The Simplicity of Complexity

During my 5 decades + of post-graduate experience in handling a wide variety of positions that have involved technical, functional, and mathematical challenges without any precedence, it seems that I have purposely sought out those unique engagements without any obvious solutions. I have done so based upon what I have proven to myself to be a truism: the more complex an engagement appears to be, the easier it is to resolve.   Although this concept is counterintuitive for most folks I expect, and not as true when dealing with leading-edge technologies, the fact is that too many professional types tend to over-think what needs to be done when it comes to threshold technologies. I am referring to those basic technologies that provide the data to support the processes that are required to manage one’s company’s operation in a truly cost-effective fashion. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the more that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) individuals are engaged with the subject at hand, the greater the risk that the solution will be over-thought … and therefore over-engineered … and therefore unnecessarily over-expensive as to both investment and maintenance. What is missing by the STEM professionals, in my opinion, are two primary principles of an MBA.


First, is the understated (and therefore underappreciated) principle in the application of statistics and realizing the rule of 80/20. That is, the variance in the coefficients of variables (if not the ability to identify all variables) that are required to make a mathematical / functional / technical analysis of (choose at topic) means that 100% of the objective is never achieved. Rather, one shoots for 80% of (chosen topic) which will require only 20% of the cost to purse an acceptable, achievable goal of (chosen topic).


The second principle of the MBA is to provide a Bottom line, Business perspective to what is being sought. This perspective suggests that STEM should be modified to be STEM-B. Below, I discuss Both the simplicity of complexity, the 80/20, as well as the Bottom line perspective. The distinction I am making here is the difference between STEM Technicians and STEM- B Technologists.


Complexity / Simplicity

As an example of the simplicity of complexity, I reflect on the early days of the U.S. space program. At one point, there was a significant effort on the part of space STEMs to develop a solution for astronauts to shave in a gravity-free environment so as to prevent the shaved whiskers from fouling the on-board electronic equipment. Several solutions would have been to use only Native Americans or female astronauts (assuming that smooth legs would not be a requirement). After significant research in vacuum-capture systems, the chosen solution at that time was to use a razor in concert with shaving cream that would capture the severed hair particles – how effective, how pragmatic.

In this vein relative to railroads, PTC is a prime example of how the technicians have clearly blown it. As addressed in earlier postings on this blog, these folks have totally over-engineered not only the functionality of PTC, e.g., the enforcement of intermittent signals (ISs), but also over-designed 2 of the 3 core technologies of PTC, i.e., communications and positioning (see posting on March 5, 2013 titled “The Goods, the Bads, & The Uglies” that can be found on the blog by selecting the category of “Strategic Core Infrastructure” on the home page). At least the third core technology of Information Processing was well thought out as to the use of 2of 3 processors to ensure the availability of the on-board PTC platform to avoid regulatory requirements to proceed at restricted speed should the PTC unit fail in route.

So! What is the simplicity of complexity? By this I mean that if one takes an 80/20 perspective of what can be accomplished by making good assumptions, then solutions can be realistically achieved.  For example, no railroad is 100% safe, even though the FRA fatuously states that there should be ZERO tolerance for unsafe railroad operations. The truth is that a railroad’s operation has 0% chance of being 0% unsafe unless it runs zero trains. That doesn’t make any sense, of course, and such expectations of absolute safety results in overbearing regulations such as the PTC mandate (thanks to a knee jerk reaction by Congress to the horrific MetroLink – UP accident in 2008) that is clearly not cost-effective for U.S. railroads. When I designed the first overlay PTC system in the U.S., and subsequently in Egypt (as discussed in the most recent postings on this blog), I made a 80/20 evaluation of what could be achieved with the technologies at hand relative to the operating environment of most railroads across the globe.  For example, it was clear that a vital system (that which generates the movement authorities for trains to advance) that integrated traffic control with enforcement, such as moving block, was not technically nor functionally achievable in a cost-effective fashion due to technologies, operating practices (including the handling of yard operations), given that the majority of train movements are unscheduled both within and between railroads (interchange). In the case of Egypt, the issues are even more complex given the use of “vital employees” that manually generate movement authorities. Hence, I designed Virtual CTC solution (VCTC) to address what could be done cost-effectively to prevent the majority of accidents in the U.S. as well as both the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) and the majority of small and medium railroads across the globe. This process required making assumptions as to what was really needed for safety – an analysis that subsequently proved to be right on. Do these solutions meet the FRA expectations for ZERO tolerance? – Absolutely not – BUT, then again, nothing can. However, VCTC is very cost-effective … and exactly what the Egyptian Railways and many other railroads across the globe need to make their railroads financially viable while providing unprecedented safety not achievable with conventional operating systems.

Being 80/20 in one’s thinking means having the mental and institutional ability to be creative, To be mentally creative means having the ability, again, to make assumptions that eliminate that 20% of the problem that can’t be achieved in any reasonable fashion, and then design a solution, followed by a subsequent review of the assumptions made to be sure that nothing critical was left out.  As to institutional freedom, I am referring to the organization permitting its employees to pursue justifiable, cost-effective solutions that make financial sense. Unfortunately, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that most executive bonus programs are based on the near term, without a long-term strategic perspective, that may restrict such a process.  A case in point here is the lack of an industry-business perspective by the US freight railroads that could deliver interchange data for minimizing the effect on scheduled operations. That is, a railroad dependent upon interchange is constrained to running to schedule if the other railroad is not running to schedule, and visa versa. This is an industry issue. (Does any railroad have the evaluation of interchange efficiency in its executive bonus program?) Interestingly, it is the PTC mandate that is forcing the railroads to develop an interoperable, industry-wide wireless data infrastructure that can deliver such industry wide applications for the benefit of all. Without that mandate, it is my opinion that the technical solutions of individual railroads would have prevented such a strategic perspective. This point introduces the second issue of addressing the bottom line.


The Bottom Line

So, how did the technicians manage to ignore the bottom line with the over-engineering of PTC to meet the PTC mandate?  And, arguably more important, why is there no Industry Strategy on how an industry-wide wireless network, that will be delivered to meet the interoperability requirement of PTC, can benefit the railroads both individually and collectively (e.g., the ability to improve scheduled performance with the availability of timely interchange data of foreign trains …  or … How is that foreign locomotive in the lead of the train on my property performing?)

On June 6, 2011 I made a posting “Six Wireless Decisions Your Wireless Management Shouldn’t Make”  (which can be found on this blog by selecting the category of Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, going to the bottom of the postings that are provided and then clicking on Older Entries). This posting paraphrased an article in the November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled “The Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”. Simply stated, the HBR article makes the point, and my wireless version parrots, that operations management fails “to recognize that adopting systems poses a business – not just a technological- challenge. Consequently, they (a company’s senior management) don’t take responsibility for the organizational and business process changes the systems requires.” The result of this lack of involvement is that the CIO (or CWP – Chief Wireless Person), with a technology perspective exclusively, is constraining the advancement of the company’s business processes, and most likely the return on IT (or wireless) investment and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.

In that prior posting I suggested the following 6 decisions that the CWP shouldn’t make as to wireless in sync with HBR’s article as to CIOs and IT.

  1. How much should we spend on wireless?
  2. Which business processes should receive our wireless dollars?
  3. Which wireless capabilities need to be company-wide (and industry-wide)?
  4. How good do our wireless services really need to be?
  5. What security and privacy risks will we accept?
  6. Whom do we blame if a wireless initiative fails?

To add my personal touch here, I list below some questions that the senior railroad executives may want to ask their Engineering and Operations management.

  1. What are the plans to use the wireless data for our internal purposes?
  2. What is the strategy for the industry to use the forthcoming wireless data network?
  3. What accuracy do we really need for train positioning and speed?
  4. Does CAD provide the necessary traffic management tools to perform proactive traffic management?
  5. What can be done to improve the reliability of interchange to increase scheduled operations?
  6. Does Operations know the condition of the foreign locomotive in our trains?
  7. How do we measure the efficiency of the dispatchers?
  8. Is Service Design aligned with what can be done with timely train position and speed data as to developing an achievable train schedule?
  9. Why oh why are railroads enforcing ISs for PTC?

The closing point is that the rail industry needs technologists, in sync with technicians, that can deliver solutions based on the bottom line, both for individual railroads as for the industry.  The railroads are not on schedule here as well.

VCTC – Published Articles

For those individuals interested in the previous posting on Virtual CTC (Next Generation of Operating Systems ), I am providing below an article of mine that was published in the August issue of Railway Age. A similar article is planned to be published in the October issue of International Railways Journal (IRJ).

Next Generation Operating Systems

As the result of the study that my consultancy completed in Egypt in December 2012 to advance the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), there is now what I refer to as the Next Generation of an integrated Traffic Control, Traffic Management, and Enforcement systems. That is, Virtual CTC (VCTC) uses advancing technologies such as wireless data and virtual positioning, in concert with a CTC-type back office, to deliver tremendous safety and efficiency capability at a mere fraction of the cost that would be required for conventional or advanced signaling such as ETCS and CBTC.

The video below places VCTC in perspective to the traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement systems across the globe and addresses how both railroads and suppliers may want to pursue its development and deployment.

Teddy Bears Revisited

Three years ago in this blog I introduced a category of postings referred to as the “Teddy Bears” (TBs), as listed on the right side of the home page. Simply stated, TBs are convenient, but ill-justified, statements and beliefs that too many traditionalists in the industry (whether they be regulators, railroaders, or suppliers) fatuously cling to justify their perspective of railroad operations as to safety and/or efficiency. Unfortunately, these TBs are also restricting the opportunities to improve operations via the deployment of advancing technologies and associated business processes. Why these traditionalists do so, whether knowingly or not, is very likely due to the following:
1. They truly don’t consider the bottom line of railroading by not providing cost-effect technology strategies aligned with a strategic business plans;
2. Railroads relies on technicians instead of Technologists who can make a business case in sync with a technology strategy; and
3. Railroads’ upper management is focused on short-term goals to maximize their annual bonuses; and
4. There is little to no business strategy as to the advancement of operations across the railroads as an industry.

The TBs that I have covered so far include the following:
• No Time For Strategy (November 2010);
• CAD Delivers Traffic Management (October 2010);
• Train Dispatching is Too Difficult for That Math Stuff (August 2010);
• Digital Authorities are Vital (July, 2010);
• PTC is Vital (June 2010);
• Operating a Railroad Safely Requires Signaling (June 2010);
• There’s Nothing Vital in Dark Territory (May 2010);
• PTC Delivers Business Benefits (May 2010);
• We Run a Scheduled Railroad (May 2010).

There are other TBs that have yet to be covered in this blog including:
• Real time data is the Real Thing for structuring technology solutions;
• The lack of reliable interchange by other railroads is a real problem for our railroad.
• The railroad environment is unique and therefore requires unique technology solutions. Hence the railroads’ technicians must do the design;
• Only traditional suppliers can possibly understand railroad operations;
• It’s all about the main line – yards operations are secondary;
• As regulators, we can only accept “zero-tolerance” for operational risk;
• The Service Design folks can’t deal with all of the exceptions that occur;
• Don’t question, yet alone criticize; and lastly
• Just a couple more years and it will be somebody else’s problem.

Most of the above TBs, if not all, still exist to a great extent across North America’s freight railroads, arguably the World’s most sophisticated freight operation. So! What chance is there for the antiquated and developing railroads across the globe that are being forced-fed the “conventional” traffic control and traffic management systems which are based upon century-old technologies?

Within the next several months I will have articles published in Railway Age , International Railways Journal (IRJ), and possibly another international journal that addresses vehicular technologies regarding the Virtual Centralized Train Control (VCTC) system I designed with my associates to address the requirements for the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), as well as many, many other railroads across the globe that are critical for expanding the commerce of their respective countries. Those articles in concert with the attached video, take on many of the TBs addressed above as to safe and efficient rail operations without the use of traditional, conventional solutions that are justified only for high density rail operations.


Lastly, I encourage you to suggest other TBs for my consideration of a possible posting.

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Given recent tech advances there is now an unprecedented opportunity to advance railroad operations and the integration of high speed rail with freight. Real-time traffic management and communication is possible without significant development and deployment costs, but it will take a technology strategy working hand-in-hand with an operational strategy, it will take Strategic Railroading.™
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